Together with Tudor Times we bring you a profile on a different Tudor figure every month. This month it’s the turn of the woman who refused to play by the rules of the Tudor court.
Each month, Tudor Times features an influential personality from the Tudor and Stewart era, exploring the individual’s life with an in-depth biography, information on some of the castles, palaces and other places associated with him or her and relevant articles on topics as diverse as tournaments, jewellery and rebellions. This month, we are concentrating on Lady Penelope Devereux, a leading figure in the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, described as “a fair woman, with a black soul.”
Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich c. 1563-1607
Penelope Devereux was a star of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart courts. A renowned beauty, she was the muse of Sir Philip Sidney, and is immortalised in the sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella. But Penelope wasn’t just a court beauty – she was intelligent, educated, and involved in political and religious intrigue.
Descended from England’s medieval kings, Penelope was also a blood relative of Queen Elizabeth I. Her great-grandmother was the queen’s aunt, Mary Boleyn, and her grandmother, Katherine Carey, one of the queen’s closest friends.
Penelope’s country childhood came to an abrupt end when her father, the Earl of Essex, died of dysentery in Dublin, following a long and financially ruinous campaign in Ireland. Penelope became the ward of the rigidly Puritan Earl and Countess of Huntingdon. From Penelope’s later career, it is hard to imagine that she enjoyed the daily Bible study and lessons in household management that were the order of the day.
Aged 18, a new life beckoned. Presented at Court in early 1581 she quickly became the toast of poets and playwrights. Penelope’s mother, Lettice, was in disgrace with the queen for having secretly married Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, but that does not seem to have affected Penelope, who remained at Court in the royal entourage for several months, until she married the staunchly Puritan Robert, 3rd Baron Rich.
For a few years she and Lord Rich seem to have got along well enough – she bore him at least four children and lived the life of a great lady, between home and Court.
In the late 1580s Penelope began to behave in less conventional ways. Together with her brother, the Earl of Essex, and Rich, Penelope entered into a treasonable correspondence with King James VI of Scotland. James would probably be Elizabeth’s successor, and the plotters were determined that their early support should be at the forefront of the king’s mind.
Penelope was also running an even greater risk of trouble with the law by harbouring one of the leaders of the Catholic mission and contemplating conversion.
On the home front too, Penelope played with fire, embarking on an affair with Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, which produced at least three children, all of whom Lord Rich accepted as his own – although, given Penelope named one of them Mountjoy, their paternity can hardly have been a secret.
Penelope was closely involved in the abortive Essex Rebellion in 1600, but, despite her brother accusing her of being the prime mover, she was not punished.
On James’s accession, Penelope became a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Anna and took her place at the heart of court life. It all came tumbling down when, divorced at last from Rich, she and Blount married, against a strict church prohibition. James, furious, banished her, and she died disgraced in 1607.
Visit Tudor Times for more on the life of Penelope Devereux.
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